Extraordinary Stories

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The "War Is Hell Museum" Story

Brochure and tag worn at the Medical Museum
It was an ordinary day.  Standing with my Granddaughter, Camille, in one of the displays at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland.  After reading about and viewing the display she gives me a, "That's really gross!" And ... I must admit I agreed with her.  It truly is unimaginable how soldiers in the Civil War, both Union and Confederate, could have endured the horrible pain and suffering associated with being shot or injured in battle.  We were standing in front of an interactive display that told of different soldier's mishaps and what happened to them.  Several frames, which featured a short story and sketch or early photo of a soldier, could be opened to see what happened to that soldier.  
My granddaughter opens one of the frames that shows the results
of a statement on the front.  In this display pictures of soldiers
are displayed telling you what malady they had when they
enlisted and whether they became a soldier or were sent home. 
And ... some of it was really gross as my grand- daughter said.  The museum, which is billed as the #1 Tourist Attraction in Frederick, is located in the historic district of downtown Frederick in an old building that was perhaps a downtown store at one time.  The museum presents the challenges faced by doctors and surgeons during the Civil War and highlights the innovations that resulted from that era.  
This is a surgeon's operating kit.
Fields such as neurology and plastic surgery made great advance- ments during this era.  One display showed a picture of a soldier who had most of his lower face missing and what it looked like after surgery and skin grafting.  Not the same as today, but it was amazing what they could do with the resources they had at the time.  
The rear of the Autenrieth Medicine Wagon
can be seen extending from the wall.
As Camille and I went from one display room to the next, we got to see just how horrible war really can be.  One display showed the rear of a Autenrieth Medicine Wagon and how it was equipped.  There were three types of medicine wagons that were used during the Civil War.  One would be used to restock field hospitals, one would be used as a "clean up" crew after battles and collect the deceased while another one would be used as a type of ambulance and be a mobile surgical wagon.  An early medicine wagon was constructed in 1862 according to plans of Union Medical Director Jonathan Letterman.  
An etching of what the wagon looked like.
This Autenrieth wagon was unique in that it contained sliding shelves and drawers to hold medicines and supplies as well as a sliding flat work surface that could be pulled out when the back of the wagon was opened.  This surface could be used as an operating table right in the field.  Eventually, the medical wagon would be considered one of the greatest accomplishments of the Civil War.  
This is a painting of a river boat hospital.
Our modern ambulances are based on this medical wagon. We also discovered that river boats and steamships were used as hospital rooms.  Each ship would have a surgeon and assistant surgeon.  
A real life display showing a surgeon preparing to
amputate a soldier's leg.
Railroad cars were also modified to transport the wounded from the front line to hospital centers.  Railroad cars specifically produced for medical transport were being built by the Philadel- phia Railroad Company by 1863.  The medicine used by both sides in the Civil War is pretty much no longer used or is perhaps what we would consider to be over-the-counter medicine today.  
Another display shows a soldier with hospital knapsack.
A few facts I should share are: Anesthesia was used in at least 95% of major surgeries, there were twelve African American men who served as Union surgeons during the war, prior to the Civil War any system of hospitalization was virtually unknown in America, many women served as nurses in the military hospital making nursing an accepted profession and the success of the hospitals during the war led to an increased acceptance of hospitals as places of healing as they are today.  

I believe we both walked out the door of the museum with a better under- standing of how terrible war can be and what the young men who fought for both sides had to endure for years.  The lucky ones escaped without needing any medical attention or had to suffer a medical fate I wouldn't wish on anyone.  And, I can't imagine the stress and life-altering impression the war must have made on those who had to treat those wounded.  This museum certainly lays fact to the saying of "War is Hell!!"   It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.           


  1. Larry, my grandfather was a Battlefield surgeon in the Union Army and I donated his two "amputation kits" to this museum years ago. You may have even looked at them. He was a Southener who joined the Union Army.

  2. Chip, I can't imagine what he must have been through during those years. The museum was interesting, but then you realize that it really happened, probably on the exact spot where we were standing. Very moving trip through, as I said in my title, hell.